The power game, p.2
The Power Game, p.2Thomas Keneally
It was a task whose nature had not been made entirely clear to Monsarrat. Yes, there had been a murder in the remote penal settlement of Maria Island. Monsarrat had heard little of the place. It was either mentioned as an afterthought, a colony too small to think much of, or it was whispered of – an ocean fortress which held a mysterious prisoner who’d been given immunity from death.
But the person whose murder Monsarrat was being sent to investigate, the circumstances of his dispatch, and why the crime was sufficiently sensitive to warrant help from Sydney, had not yet been revealed.
It was unusual for a commandant to send for help over such a distance. And the only assistance Ralph Eveleigh, Monsarrat’s superior on the governor’s staff in Parramatta, had given him was snuggled in a blue velvet box in his trunk. Monsarrat would have preferred a detailed brief, but would have to make do with the gift of an ornate magnifying glass, a spare one Eveleigh had been given and passed to Monsarrat.
They were still a little too far out to see Hobart Town clearly but Monsarrat could make out the British flag on one of the hills of their island destination on their port side. He saw Mrs Mulrooney glance at it, then frown and look away. It was a design she had seen flying over her own dead.
Used to the encompassing glare and unapologetic heat of Parramatta, Monsarrat could not help feeling that he had been taken back across the oceans to Plymouth. This place had the same low sky, and even on the summer’s morning a piercing wind scudded up the river and found its way inside his coat.
While it was an outpost, Hobart Town was a well-developed one. Slabs of pinch-windowed, honey-stoned buildings, warehouses of the chief merchants, found themselves reflected in the harbour, or those sections of it which weren’t obscured by the hulls of boats. Small craft swarmed between the larger brigs, with their cargoes of wool or flour or fish. Men called between boat and dock, ropes were thrown, and the occasional splash announced that someone had been less than cautious in the throwing. Empty carts lined up near the dock to swallow cargo, full ones to disgorge it. Some of those who should probably have been handing crates ashore were disappearing around corners with women who had artfully pulled down one shoulder of their dresses. And behind the town sat the megalith of a mountain, like a divine presence, almost too big for the landscape.
The boat, when it docked, was still being rocked from side to side by wavelets fed by the river wind, worsening Mrs Mulrooney’s temper as she was hauled ashore by a young sailor and then tripped on a protruding nail, which she no doubt felt had been put there specifically for the purpose.
Monsarrat, engaged in helping the muttering woman to her feet, failed to notice immediately the man who had approached them. He wore a brown jacket, with the seam attaching one of the sleeves to the shoulder slowly unravelling. It was impossible to tell whether his neckerchief was clean – Monsarrat always told himself such things shouldn’t matter, but could never resist checking – as it was black and tucked in to a grey shirt, which might once have been white. The man did not introduce himself, or smile, or raise the broad-brimmed hat on top of his head. He simply stopped a few feet from them, standing with his arms crossed, staring. Monsarrat felt oddly offended. The man was probably a former convict. Surely, in a world which viewed them as animals, their only hope was failing to behave as such. ‘Good morning, sir,’ Monsarrat said, in a more clipped manner than he’d intended. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Doubt it,’ the man said. ‘I’m here to help you, though. At least, help you into Marley’s office. After that, you’re on your own.’
‘And Marley is who?’
The man snorted. ‘You’ve obviously not been to Van Diemen’s Land before,’ he said. ‘Richard Marley. Comptroller of convicts here. Wants to see you – that is, if you’re the governor’s man from Sydney?’
‘Yes,’ Monsarrat said wearily, bending to pick up Mrs Mulroony’s shawl from where it had fallen as she tripped. ‘Yes, I’m the governor’s man from Sydney.’
And he really should have found out Marley’s name, he chided himself. He had been told only that he was to report to the Van Diemen’s Land comptroller of convicts for further instructions. That somebody would meet him. There had been no time to ask more, the fastidious Ralph Eveleigh being in a tearing rush to bundle them onto a boat. But placing one’s reliance on such vague directions, even when they came from one of the least vague men in the world, was probably unwise.
‘Come on, then,’ said the man. ‘And bring your missus, if she is up to it.’
Mrs Mulrooney opened her mouth, but Monsarrat caught her eyes and shook his head. No point making corrections until they knew whether such scruples would serve them.
He had expected a small carriage or horses to be waiting, but none seemed to be. Instead, the man led them on foot around to the eastern shore of the cove, to a dun-coloured slab of a building on which no creativity had been lavished, with small black windows which would surely struggle to admit any of the light frugally dispensed through the low clouds.
The man stood aside when they reached the door. ‘Second floor. He’s expecting you.’
Or at least expecting someone. Monsarrat found it hard to believe that, as a ticket-of-leave convict, he himself fitted satisfactorily into that expectation. He knocked on the door of the first office at the top of the stairs, Mrs Mulrooney dragging herself up behind him.
The man inside, who had been reading a document which appeared to be some sort of list, looked up. He took off his pince-nez glasses, massaged the bridge of his nose, stared and waited.
The man nodded.
‘Hugh Monsarrat, sir. I believe I am expected.’
The man said nothing, raised his eyebrows.
‘From the governor’s office in Parramatta, sir,’ said Monsarrat. ‘You sent for me.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Yes, come in. Your servant may wait downstairs.’ Again, Mrs Mulrooney opened her mouth to object, but Monsarrat turned and raised his eyebrows at her, an apology and entreaty. You are not a servant to me, he thought, but you’d better pretend to be one right now.
As her footfalls, made heavy by irritation as well as her injury, receded down the stairs, Monsarrat took the seat Marley gestured towards.
‘Apologies for not meeting you off the boat,’ he said. ‘Quite a task, this. Comptroller of the uncontrollable.’
Monsarrat was amazed at this confession, as to an equal. ‘Yes, I imagine it would be. I have known commandants of small penal settlements who find the same.’
‘And this is no small penal settlement, Mr Monsarrat. I am what stands between the convicts and the civilised.’
‘Surely, sir, some of them are civilised. Some of those who have finished their time.’
Inwardly, a more cautious Monsarrat said, ‘Don’t argue with him, you idiot.’
‘They’re amongst the worst. Redeemed? Delirious, most of them. They see things through the same false medium as ever – a medium they cannot understand, any more than they understand us. Under such circumstances, outrage is to be expected from time to time.’
He doesn’t know I am one of the damned, thought Monsarrat. He can’t, not if he is speaking like this. For the present Monsarrat decided to hold off on enlightening Marley that the man was conversing with someone who had viewed the world through that same false medium. ‘I’m sure, though,’ Monsarrat said, ‘that a man with as many calls on his time as you have has not invited me from New South Wales merely to discuss the obdurate nature of convicts.’
‘No, indeed. Although the obdurate nature of one convict in particular may become relevant,’ Marley said. ‘I have asked you here, in point of fact, in relation to the murder of a man who might have run foul of that very delirium of which I spoke. Fellow nearly had his arm severed at the shoulder by an axe before being thrown over a cliff. He was found in the shallows, rolling back and forth between some rocks.’
Monsarrat had shared a small penal settlement with several people capable of
‘I stand ready to assist,’ he said. ‘I must ask, though, would somebody familiar with Van Diemen’s Land and Maria Island not be better equipped to deal with the matter?’
‘Perhaps, but because this death occurred in a place so far removed from civilisation, it can hardly lay claim to being part of this outpost. Even I received word of it a full week after the event. When the murder takes place on a small island, and the victim is the only free man there with the skill to steer a small boat through high seas, getting word to Hobart Town can take some time.’
Maria Island, Marley told Monsarrat, had around three hundred convicts. But it had one prisoner who figured above all others.
‘His name is Thomas Power,’ Marley said. ‘And I suspect it was he who killed the bosun.’
‘Thomas Power?’ said Monsarrat. ‘Surely not the revolutionary?’
Marley thumped the desk, a move so sudden that Monsarrat started backwards.
‘Is there anyone who has not heard of the man? That he should achieve such fame off the back of his crimes against the Crown of Great Britain is simply … appalling. Were his name to fade into obscurity, he would probably count that as a far worse punishment than incarceration. But no, the Whiggish newspapers in England – as well as troublemakers in other countries – continue to write about him. They place inhuman pressure on Lieutenant Governor Arthur to be kind to him. Yet these scribblers on the other side of the seas are safely insulated from the reality of the truth by leagues of ocean.’
Monsarrat could not help feeling a shiver of excitement at the prospect of meeting Power, a man he had read about in the London Chronicle, as well as reprinted passages from the London papers in the Sydney Chronicle, which he tried to peruse after Ralph Eveleigh was finished with it.
Power was an Irish nobleman, who had lent his strategic skill and charisma to the cause of freedom in Colombia and Venezuela with Bolívar himself, and then returned to Ireland with the military skills he had learned. He had taken a seat in the House of Commons, waking up some members who had been asleep for decades with his fiery speeches, and had become the leader of a failed attempt to wrest his country from the grasp of Britain.
He was lucky to have survived, but the authorities feared making a martyr of him. Best not to turn him into St Thomas by pulling him apart with horses (quartering, as they called it) and hanging and eviscerating him.
They tried to tilt his halo by offering him a bargain: they would give him a ticket of leave, freedom of movement and being his own man in a country district of the colony, in exchange for his promise not to escape. Other politicals had accepted those terms, happy to exchange untarnished heroism for food and comfort and nights at the inn. Power said he would prefer to keep open the option of escape if by some chance it was ever offered to him. So he was tucked away on a remote fragment of rock, in the hope that he would diminish in the world’s memory.
Marley growled, ‘You might remember, Monsarrat, that Power gained a special notoriety after he refused to take his freedom: two of his accomplices, transported with him, were offered a ticket of leave each, in exchange for a promise not to escape. The same offer was made to Power, who said he could not, in all conscience, make a promise he did not intend to keep. Men in London and Dublin who would cheerfully have attended his hanging decided he was clearly some sort of a man of honour.’
Power had been on Maria for well over a year now, but resolutely refused to abandon the Irish rebel stance he had adopted when he and his followers had attacked a fortified police barracks in Cork and were rounded up.
‘The fellow’s a showman – he did it to burnish his image,’ Marley said. ‘The best way to punish him is to remove his access to adoration, to erase him from the public memory. That’s why, Mr Monsarrat, we did not simply leave this matter to the local constabulary. We need somebody discreet. Somebody who can be relied on to avoid Power’s blandishments.’
‘I can assure you, Mr Marley, I am reasonably resistant to blandishments.’
‘I am glad to hear it. Until we know what we’re dealing with, any intrigue surrounding the name Thomas Power must be avoided at all costs.
‘You will also need to make sure others there are not in his thrall. There were rumours that Power had the run of the island, that he was dining nightly with the commandant of the place – stable enough fellow called Brewster. Not as stable as I would have hoped, though, for he was indeed entertaining Power. Such is the diabolical nature of the man, you see. He is able to charm almost anyone.’
‘But not you, sir,’ Monsarrat could not resist saying.
Marley sat straight in his chair, raising his chin defiantly. ‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘Power is now confined to his cottage and is not allowed beyond the small yard outside. More space than many prisoners are given, and more than he deserves. He is no longer able to treat the island as his private kingdom.’ Marley lowered his sturdy and opinionated voice. ‘And this is another reason we asked for someone from Sydney. Not a local gossiping constable. It would be a wonderful convenience to the lieutenant governor if it were discovered that Power were responsible for this crime.
‘We could find someone to prove he did it if we wanted, but the world and even elements of the Commons, let alone Ireland, would not accept it unless the evidence were overwhelming. For that reason it is important I offer you no inducement of any kind and no promise of preferment if you find he is indeed the one. Now, I believe he had some motivation, but we will need more than that. Essentially, if this darling of the radicals were found a common murderer, it would be a wonderful thing for certain powerful men in London, let alone for His Excellency and myself.’
Monsarrat left the office with every display of politeness. And yet he felt annoyed. Try to find Power guilty, please powerful men in England? The powerful men in England could be damned! They were the sort of men who would consider him dregs. As for pleasing Marley …
On the other hand, what if Power were the killer?
I must clear my head, thought Monsarrat, of all I know. As impossible as it is, I must be delivered to Maria Island as a clean slate, a blank page. A man of good will.
‘Bounced around in a cart for the better part of the day, and then another boat? Another island dangling off an island dangling off an island?’
Monsarrat had been dreading Mrs Mulrooney’s reaction to the next stage of their journey.
‘I know, I know – it’s not your favourite mode of transport. I promise, though, it will be a short trip. Your agreement to undertake it is yet another testament to your fortitude.’
Mrs Mulrooney glared at him for a moment, then sighed and sat down on the bench in the scullery where he had found her, attempting to teach appropriate tea-making procedure to the Orient’s cook.
‘I don’t blame you for it, Mr Monsarrat, and I’m sorry for my temper – no, I am, although do not expect to hear me say it again. Padraig has not answered any of my letters for some time. And I worry, you know, about Helen and little Eliza.’
Monsarrat could sympathise. He, too, found his thoughts were returning to Parramatta. In his case, though, they bypassed his comfortable cottage and landed in the third-class penitentiary of the Parramatta Female Factory, where a convict called Grace O’Leary awaited her imminent freedom.
‘Your forbearance is remarkable,’ he said. ‘Don’t frown at me, dear friend – I mean it. If it’s any consolation, I imagine it will be several weeks before we return. Time enough to enjoy the feeling of solid ground beneath your feet.’
‘As long as they’ve tea there,’ she said, ‘I will be right enough. Flour, butter and sugar would als
‘Well, while I can’t promise Maria Island will provide you with everything on your list, it does seem to have an intriguing man caged up there, so I’m sure it will provide us both with an interesting experience.’
In the end, Mrs Mulrooney resolutely refused to take to the sea again that day. Not, she told Monsarrat, without some time for a woman to come to terms with the situation. She had, after all, been carted over rutted roads on the journey south from Hobart Town, and could not be expected to deal with a turbulent ocean so soon.
It was as well, then, thought Monsarrat, that the cutter which would ferry them to Maria Island had not yet arrived in the little inlet with the small village of Triabunna on one of its shores, so he was able to settle her at the inn there.
The boat materialised a short time later as Monsarrat watched from the porch of the inn, its sail slacking and snapping according to the whims of the wind, its nose dipping and rising enough to tell Monsarrat that they were not in for a peaceful crossing. As its skipper brought the boat into the dock, the reason for the delay was evident. A man in the black coat and white bib of a magistrate sat on its rear bench, gripping on, looking from side to side as though he expected attack from under the water. He was avoiding looking behind him, though – the boat’s gunwales were closest to the water thanks to the man’s girth, which would have been impressive in London and was even more so here, where corpulence was rare.
His dumpling face was stippled with evidence of a childhood bout of the pox, and overlaid with small red lines which told of more recent bouts with rum. His eyes, though, even darting in panic, rested on the shore, the water, the sky for long enough to give Monsarrat the impression a certain corner of the man’s brain retained the ability of calm assessment, cordoned off from the anxiety which was consuming the rest of him.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes